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NL Championship Series Preview

   by Al McMordie - 10/10/2005

We're into October of the baseball playoffs, and it's no secret what wins this time of year. Offensively, the Astros were 14th in the National League in batting average and 11th in runs, while the Cardinals were third in runs and batting average. However, a quick look at the pitching stats finds them No. 1 and No. 2. Houston ranked second with a 3.51 team ERA, while St. Louis was tops (3.49). And here they are in the NLCS.

As always, it's not slugging percentage, home runs or even team payroll that determines who advances to the World Series, but pitching. This is the same matchup as one year ago, but both teams have different looks, making this an interesting series to dissect. The Cardinals made it to the World Series in 2004, topping the Astros in seven games in the NLCS. In fact, the home team won every game in that series.

St. Louis didn't have ace righty Chris Carpenter, who was sidelined for the 2004 postseason with an arm ailment. His absence was felt, most noticeably, when the Cardinals were swept in the World Series by the pitching-rich Red Sox, who sported two aces in Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. This year's Boston team went out in three straight to the White Sox last week and the reason was obvious: Not enough pitching. Martinezleft as a free agent, Schilling wasn't healthy all year, and ace closer Keith Foulke also caught the injury bug. Despite winning 95 games, Boston wasn't even close to being as good as last year and was thin in quality arms.

The Cardinals have actually gotten better. Carpenter is healthy and off a brilliant season, going 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA. And they've added lefty Mark Mulder (from the A's), who solidified the rotation going 16-8 with a 3.64 ERA. St. Louis now has a dominant lefty-righty one-two starting punch that they lacked a year ago. Additionally, the Cardinals' offense is still formidable, though not as good as last season, and scored 805 runs this year (down from 855 in 2004, which topped the NL). The loss of Scott Rolen (injury) and SS Edgar Renteria (to free agency) were two of the reasons for the slight decline. But since pitching is more important, the Cards are a better team in 2005. They also dipped in batting average slightly (.278 to .270) and steals (111 to 83) compared to last season.

The Cards have great balance offensively and have a tough meat of the order with Albert Pujols (.330, 41 HRs) and Jim Edmonds (29 HRs). Shortstop David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek also fit in nicely. Finally, this is an outstanding defensive team, though the loss of Rolen hurts at the hot corner.

Facing them will be a Houston Astros team that looks different from 2004. That Houston team had a monster offense, but has lost CF Carlos Beltran and 2B Jeff Kent. But this team is better on the mound with ace lefty Andy Pettitte (17-9, 2.39 ERA) who missed most of 2004 with an elbow problem. Pettitte forms a devastating mound troika with Roy Oswalt (20-12, 2.94) and ageless Roger Clemens (13-8, 1.87). Veterans Clemens and Pettitte will get a lot of attention this week, but Oswalt has electric stuff, with a great fastball and sensational movement. It wouldn't be a shock to see Oswalt as a big hero if Houston advances. Combined with unhittable closer Brad Lidge (2.29), Houston has a pitching staff that can baffle opposing offenses. Clemens may be 43, but he still is outstanding, as evidenced by the 3 innings he pitched in relief in Houston's historic 7-6, 18-inning thriller against Atlanta.

Houston has one more weapon that wasn't around a year ago in Willy Taveras, who swiped 34 bases. SS Adam Everett is an excellent glove man and stole 21 bases, so the Astros will play old-style small-ball, which is a key weapon in October when pitching usually steps to the front. If you take a look at the season series, St. Louisdominated and won 11 of 16 games. However, 5 of the games were decided by one run, 6 by two runs, and 4 by three runs. The only "blowout" was a game the Cardinals won 7-3. Besides, regular season stats don't mean much this time of year. Recall that in 1988, the Mets and Dodgers met in the NLCS, with the Mets installed as a huge favorite after winning 11 of 12 regular season games. But the Dodgers won that series 4-3 and went on to win the World Championship. Strap yourselves in, it promises to be a fun series! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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